Sani Umar, like other residents of Batsari in Batsari LGA of Katsina state, has become accustomed to periodic attacks by bandits. To steer clear of the gunmen, he was forced to relocate his family to the bush, only visiting home during the day and when they run out of food or other supplies. But his family was unable to escape the bandits’ onslaught last August when more than 100 masked assailants stormed Batsari on motorbikes, and “blocked all the roads” leading to the town.
“They just entered and the more they see people, the more they shot. You can’t say why they shot you because they didn’t demand anything from you and you refused to give them,” he said, thankful that he and a few others managed to escape to the nearby hills where they spent the night.
By dawn, when they returned to the ruins that were once houses, they counted ten bodies littered around — including Umar’s two younger brothers — while the bandits had taken some residents hostage.
In the ensuing weeks, many other Katsina villages across several LGAs fell to bandits, including Safana, Dan Musa, Jibia, Faskari and Sabuwa councils.
According to Umar, the gunmen that invaded their village gained access through the nearby Rugu forest, a notorious hideout for the bandits, where he said they had camped after entering through Nigeria’s poorly-policed 1,497 km border with Niger Republic.
“You know Niger is very close to Batsari; most of the attackers used to come from Niger. They attack and go back to Niger. They used to come to this area through this forest,” he said, while surrounded by a handful of villagers who were eager to unburden their experiences when TheCable visited in February.
“They (bandits from Niger) used to align with bandits from this area,” he alleged. “If those here want to attack the town, they used to invite those bandits from Niger to come and help them to attack any town and all these local governments are suffering from this problem. They will come through these forests without entering any town. They know their way through the forest; they know all the routes.”
WHO ARE THE BANDITS AND WHAT IS CAUSING THE ATTACKS?
For many years, criminal groups and armed gangs have wreaked havoc and killed many in Nigeria’s north-west region, where some of the world’s poorest people live. The motives for the attacks vary from vengeance to seeking the government’s attention and alleged marginalisation.
According to the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), the violent attacks have claimed 7,347 lives in the seven states that make up the north-west.
Nnamdi Obasi, senior adviser on Nigeria at the International Crisis Group, told TheCable that banditry, like other security challenges Nigeria is battling, is caused by the “convergence of failures of governance on several fronts (which) had been mounting over the years, but are now manifesting more viciously amidst serious deficits of will, capacity and engagement, at all levels of government”.
Authorities including state governors have in the past claimed that some of the gunmen referred to as bandits are not Nigerians but foreigners mostly from Niger, Mali and Senegal, but there has been little evidence to back the claim — until now. During visits to more than a dozen LGAs across Zamfara, Sokoto and Katsina, TheCable found that while the security challenge is an offshoot of the pastoral conflict that has plagued northern Nigeria, the attacks are buoyed by the lack of security presence at Nigeria’s borders with neighbouring countries, particularly Niger.
The border — which President Muhammadu Buhari once said can only be effectively monitored by God — is so porous that in a Katsina town, residents narrated how herdsmen migrate from Chad and Niger to herd their cattle mostly during the dry season, through Jibia which is just 50 kilometres from the Nigerian border.
To secure their cattle, locals say the herders often arm themselves with guns in anticipation of confrontations from rural farmers or host communities who accuse them of herding their cattle along farming routes and destroying crops in the process.
According to a Katsina government official who asked not to be named because he was not authorised to speak on the issue, some security operatives are complicit in the clashes.
“So, you have lost your farm produce which is what you are hoping to live on for the next year, and the culprits have been set free. What do you do? The farmers were left with no option but to take the law into their own hands. They started attacking the Fulanis [cattle herders] and some were killed in some areas. When they got back, the Fulanis decided in the subsequent year that they would come prepared to take vengeance against the farmers and it became an annual ritual,” the official said.
Tukur Mu’azu, district head of Batsari, however, said the greed of “people who don’t value human lives” fuels the crisis.
“This insecurity is not about Fulani people neither is it about the farmers, it is about greedy people who just want to gather as much wealth as they can,” he said.
‘NIGER AND NIGERIA ARE ONE’
In some parts of the north, there is a common belief that a northerner will relate more with a Nigerien or Chadian than with a fellow Nigerian from the south, due to, in part, their shared commonalities, including language, physical features, food and even infrastructure.
The Niger-Nigeria border was drawn up during the colonial period by Britain and France, partly driven by the “desire to check German expansion in West Africa rather than recognition of ethnicities or other indigenous factors”, according to John Campbell, former US ambassador to Nigeria.
One resident of Katsina said the relationship between the two countries is so close that “all the borders are imaginary”.
“Before the colonial masters, we were the same people, so all the borders here are imaginary borders. The land is the same, the forest is the same, the people are the same,” said Aliyu Ibrahim, before adding that during the rainy season, “you will see them (the herdsmen) passing here with their cattle and going back to Niger”.
Sunday James, spokesman of the Nigeria Immigration Service (NIS), told TheCable that the agency has not had any record of foreign herdsmen or bandits entering the country and that it remains committed to effectively policing the border.
However, the government official who spoke in Katsina said the lack of security presence along the border has paved the way for the proliferation of arms.
“We are neighbouring Niger here and most of the firearms are coming through Niger. They bring in the arms through their herdsmen, some through smuggling,” the source said.
AN OVERLOOKED BORDER GIVES WAY FOR ARMS, BANDITS AND DEATHS
From Sabon Birni LGA in Sokoto state, TheCable set out for Guidan Roumdji, a suburb of Maradi region in Niger, passing a notorious path where smugglers enter Nigeria with ease, given the lax security in the area.
Unlike Nigeria’s other borders — in Cross River, with Cameroon, and in Lagos, with Benin Republic — where there is a major entry and exit route, all that exists along the border with Niger are forests and swathes of lands, most of which are not covered by immigration officers and security agents operating under ‘Border Drill’, a patrol team manning the border.
According to locals, the path stretching about 130 km from Sabon Birni to Guidan Roumdji is notorious for both bandits and smugglers, including a suspected drug dealer recently arrested with N1 billion worth of cocaine.
“It is a safe haven for those dealing in illicit trade,” said Musa Danbura, a resident who transported the reporter across the border communities. “Once you cross the border to this road, it is like crossing to a zero zone.”
“Most of the villages raided by armed groups were mostly at the borders between Nigeria and Niger. We have noticed that after attacking villagers in Nigeria, they (bandits) will return to these routes that are accessing Niger for their escape. You will never see them going far into Nigeria’s territory,” he added.
About 6.14 million small arms are in the hands of civilian non-state actors in Nigeria. This is ten times more than the 586,600 firearms which the armed forces and law enforcement agencies collectively account for, according to Lagos-based SBM Intelligence.
Although TheCable could not trace the amount of those arms that are smuggled into the country from Niger, SBM Intelligence noted how “Nigeria’s porous borders facilitate the sourcing of weapons from countries bordering northern Nigeria”.
The Nigeria-Niger border is listed as one of the popular cross-border trafficking hubs and routes in the West African region, while the Conflict Armament Research Sources identified listed Libya, which neighbours Niger, as one of the three major supply routes of illegal arms in the region.
Oluwole Ojewale, regional coordinator for Central Africa at the Institute for Security Studies (ISS), told TheCable that the country is “experiencing the influx of criminal terrorist groups from other parts of West Africa who have suddenly found an abode in Nigeria”.
But Joseph Attah, the customs spokesperson, complained that smugglers and criminals entering the country through the borders do so with the aid of residents who act as their informants.
“These smugglers pay some of them to even construct makeshift cribs. As we try to get information about the movement of smugglers, smugglers also plant and pay people to give them information about our own movement,” he fumed.
BORDER COMMUNITIES AT THE MERCY OF BANDITS
Newspaper pages in Nigeria are often awash with reports of bandits’ attacks in communities in the north-west and north-central. TheCable found that the border communities which are most vulnerable to such attacks rarely make the headlines.
With a population of roughly 1,500, many households in Tangaza, a border community in Tangaza LGA of Sokoto, have come under attacks.
Nasiru Hamza, a perfume seller at a local stall, shared his run-in with the bandits. One evening in January, after closing business for the day, a handful of gunmen emerged from the nearby bush to attack him.
“I attempted to escape but one of them used a piece of wood and landed it on my head; they kept on hitting me until I fell on the ground,” Hamza recounts.
After another unsuccessful attempt to escape, he was forced to join other residents that had also been taken hostage. They were then forced into the bush from where they journeyed all night, stopping only once to get some sleep, and never encountering security operatives.
Hamza was freed after his family paid a ransom of N100,000, but Umaru Abdullahi who they also took that night was not lucky.
“I was given the beating of my life when the kidnappers realised that my relative brought only N70,000 as against N100,000 demanded,” 44-year-old Abdullahi said.
The timely payment of the remaining N30,000 by his brother was a stitch in time. Abdullahi was eventually released after five days in custody of his abductors, returning home with bruises and haunted by the memories of his close shave with death.
THE SOLDIERS WHO ‘HIDE FROM BANDITS’ — AND OTHER SAD TALES
Since attacks spiked in the north-west, gunmen, mostly on motorbikes, have capitalised on the thinly-policed communities to increase their influence without restraint, with just 30 police officers said to be securing 100 villages in Katsina, according to Aminu Masari, the governor.
Locals say the bandits, some of who are said to be former Boko Haram members, often attack in hundreds and use weapons more sophisticated than that of the police and the army combined.
“Their guns are better than those soldiers use,” Umar said. “That is why when we call them when the bandits are in action, they (soldiers) used to hide, they cannot go straight to the places being attacked because their guns are very sophisticated. The soldiers cannot go directly.”
On many occasions, the banditry has taken the form of tit-for-tat attacks. In Talli Mahuta, a community in Maru LGA of Zamfara, locals say bandits have launched attacks in the past to avenge rustled cattle or the death of their kin killed by either locals or security operatives.
“If you kill one, they will come and kill hundreds and that is also because of the weapons they have,” said an elderly resident who refused to give his name over the fear of being traced by bandits.
“The locals will be using dane guns to protect themselves but the smallest they are using is AK-47; some AK-49, some RPG, some anti-aircraft guns.”
Kidnapping for ransom by armed groups has been on the increase in recent years, according to SBM intelligence, which estimates that over $18 million was paid by kidnapped victims in exchange for their freedom between 2011 and 2020.
As with the farmer-herder crisis in the north-central region, TheCable was also informed that the lack of synergy in the response of the state governments and among the security agencies has been a major challenge in resolving the crisis.
While Aminu Masari, governor of Katsina, has vowed never to grant amnesty to the bandits, preferring the use of force instead, Bello Matawalle, his counterpart in the neighbouring Zamfara, sees dialogue as the best option to restore peace. Matawalle also rewards bandits who have surrendered arms, but their repentance has often been questioned.
“You cannot allow military operations to be taking place in one state and in another, there is amnesty. As you are chasing the criminals here, you are pardoning them in another state. We should consider ourselves as one, especially the security agencies,” one Katsina resident who gave his name as Aliyu said.
“Why should a commissioner of police here declare a criminal wanted and you find him in another state dining with the governor and the commissioner of police there?”
A HUMANITARIAN CRISIS NO ONE WANTS TO ACKNOWLEDGE
According to the United Nations refugee agency, as of January 2021, 70,000 Nigerians had fled to Maradi in Niger Republic because of the attacks in Katsina, Sokoto and Zamfara, with 186,820 displaced persons, mostly children and women, stranded in the three states.
But government officials in the states all downplayed the security situation during interviews with TheCable, claiming that relative peace has been restored and all the communities have become accessible.
Ibrahim Katsina, Katsina governor’s special adviser on security matters, said TheCable’s reporter can visit any community in the state without facing any security risk, adding that “most of the challenges we are having are community-based” and “we are able to have peace through effective community engagement”.
Despite the claims, TheCable’s reporter was not able to visit several villages in some LGAs, which residents described as danger zones because of incessant attacks, including Safana, Batsari, Dan Musa and Jibia.
Unlike in the north-east where humanitarian organisations are very active as a result of the Boko Haram insurgency, there is little aid coming the way of most Katsina residents who have been victims of banditry in the north-west, largely due to the failure to recognise the situation as a humanitarian crisis. When aid eventually comes, they are one-off materials, residents said.
Most of the villagers in Batsari were not as lucky as Umar after the attack. Although he lost all his belongings and has since stopped going to the farm over the fear for his life, his family has been able to survive on donations from friends and from his little take-home salary as a civil servant.
Children on the streets of Katsina
While there are just a few internally displaced persons (IDPs) camps in Katsina, Zamfara and Sokoto, women and children affected by the attacks are forced to spend the day by the roadside and night under any available shelter, including bridges.
“You won’t find any IDP camp here in Zamfara or even in Sokoto but come out at night and see them (IDPs) roaming everywhere looking for where to sleep,” Yusuf Mohammmed, a shop owner in Gusau, said.
At Gandi Primary School in Rabah LGA, one of the few IDP camps in Sokoto, no less than 20 families have shared three blocks of classrooms since 2018 when some of them first arrived.
They told TheCable that even with the discomfort and little support coming their way, they are not contemplating returning to their homes as the bandits that chased them out still lurk around.
As Abubakar Balle, one of the IDPs, recalls, those who attacked his village in Rabah “beat our women mercilessly” after which they were forced to flee to take refuge at the primary school.
“When we first arrived, we were being catered for by both state and local governments. But now, we have been left to care for ourselves. We are really in a crisis now; we need water, good shelter and medical care,” Balle pleaded.
Malam Hali, 72, has lost some of his children and grandchildren while many others are scattered across Sokoto in their struggle to eke out a living.
“We are not enjoying staying in this camp because of lack of food and medicare. Most of our elderly persons have died as a result of these plight we are facing… they were helpless and could not get proper care at their old ages,” Hali said.
Shamsu Musa Gandi, a Red Cross staff, confirmed that unlike in the past, the IDPs rarely get food aid, despite the fact that more people keep arriving in the camp for shelter.
“You can see that these people are in dire need of help. This has been ongoing since 2018 when they first arrived here,” he said, waving to a baby girl who clutched her mother’s legs as she cried profusely.
“The situation is very critical.”
Obasi, the senior adviser at the International Crisis Group who has been studying the security situation in the region for about a decade, said the government must act quickly on four fronts to restore peace.
“First, it should commit more resources to rapidly scaling up the manpower and overall capacity of all security agencies while also implementing deep institutional reforms that will make them more effective, he said.
“It should also convene or encourage dialogues that could help in defusing ethnic, religious and other tensions across the country while curbing impunity by investigating atrocities, apprehending and sanctioning perpetrators, and also providing redress to victims.”
On his part, Ojewale, the ISS regional coordinator, said for Nigeria to achieve sustainable peace in the region, the country must “heighten its border surveillance, adopt state/community policing and address the socio-economic roots or drivers” of the security crisis.
But not even Umar knows how long that would take. Asked what his plans for sustainable livelihood are, he smirks and quickly points out that, like many villagers who have suffered attacks from bandits, their only priority is to stay alive.
“You don’t know when next or where next they will attack. We have left home, but no one is still safe because they (bandits) are everywhere and in the bushes,” he said. “No one is safe.”
Source: The CableNG